It is often said that social media is an echo chamber. People tend to follow, and listen to, people that already agree with them. Opinions get shared and re-shared between the network of people that already agree with each other. The net effect is a kind of recycled confirmation bias where our ideas are never challenged and everything is black and white. There is never room for nuance, balance, or new thoughts in an echo chamber.
But there is another chilling result of this phenomenon that I want to explore here, and hopefully challenge all of us to overcome.
What is an Echo Chamber?
When we live in a social echo chamber, and combine that with the dehumanization of the issues through the distance that social media provides, we get a toxic division between large groups of people. Imagine two of the major echo chambers that exist politically today: liberals and conservatives. Each is in its own chamber.
Each chamber is labeled with a set of ideals, thoughts, and assertions. These are easy enough to define. All you have to do is look at the standard set of talking points repeated over and over by the public representatives of each chamber.
In order to live in the echo chamber of your choice, you must agree to all of those talking points. If you do not agree with all of those talking points (no exceptions, now. We can’t have that.) then you can’t live there.
It’s unconsciously self-imposed fascism.
Playing to the Extremes
The problem is that the ideas and positions that define those chambers get more and more extreme every day. They are more and more polarized and reactionary against the opposite echo chamber. Conservatives are no longer conservatives. They are anti-liberal. Liberals are no longer liberal, they are anti-conservative. Each group is now defined by what they are against, not by what they are for.
I encounter this constantly online. If I say “I’m pro life”, then it is always assumed that I think the mother should die if the pregnancy will kill her or that I hate women or I am mean to single mothers. None of those things are true of me, but that doesn’t matter. If I say “let’s have compassion for immigrants” it is assumed that I am against vetting incoming immigrants or against newcomers becoming citizens. If I say “I didn’t vote for candidate-X” then it is assumed that I love the other candidate. If I question something our president or representatives do, I must not be a conservative patriot. I’ve seen this dynamic play out in countless situations with myself and many others. I’m sure you have to.
We do the same thing inside the church regarding doctrinal or church tradition issues. If I say “I like some of Calvin’s teachings” it’s assumed I don’t believe in evangelism because no Calvinist does, right? If I say, “I’m a charismatic” it’s assumed that I spend all day blowing shofars and building custom tambourines. If I prefer expository preaching, it’s assumed that I hate topical preaching. If I agree with the Pope on something, I must be Catholic. If I quote Luther, I must be anti-Semitic.
Do you see the problem? We aren’t talking to each other anymore. We are only repeating established talking points over and over like robots without autonomy. We are refusing to allow individuals to be individuals. We dehumanize the issues and then remove all the grey areas where nuance and balance is required. We are constantly monitoring what other people say, trying to determine which box they belong in.
Imagine discussing immigration with a real immigrant. Imagine discussing abortion with a single, pregnant 16 year old. Imagine discussing charismatic gifts with a Jesus-loving cessationist. How would that human face affect your speech? How would it affect your opinions?
One thing is for sure, it would require a level of care and nuance that is not required when you are speaking from inside the echo chamber.
A Lesson Learned
I learned this lesson many years ago in my arrogant college years. Someone asked me the standard “Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people.” I launched into my standard “there are no good people” reply for what must have been several minutes. The more I yammered on, the more hurt the person looked.
When I finally shut up long enough for the person to respond, I discovered that a family member had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
This was not a philosophical question. It was a real question, asked from a broken and despondent heart. This person was wondering if God still loved him and his family. I answered it from my echo chamber and did real damage to a person’s soul that may have been genuinely seeking Jesus.
Regardless of your political leanings, it is very clear that America is growing deeply divided. More and more so every day.
The Body of Christ is also being dragged down into this mire of division. We must escape it, or it will consume us.
Jesus showed us how to do it. Jesus lived and did ministry in a grossly oppressive and wicked government occupation. Israel was occupied and controlled by Rome, yet Jesus managed to launch the New Testament Church and begin the greatest movement of world transformation ever conceived. And He did it without becoming stuck in the political quagmire.
There was tremendous pressure inside and outside His ranks to build a political movement to overthrow the Romans and restore Israel to its former glory under King David. Jesus never took the bait. Instead, Jesus chose to put His effort into establishing the Kingdom of God in the hearts of a handful of people. Jesus did it by feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and restoring the broken. He did it by disrupting the religious establishment with a radical love and a clear prophetic voice that the world had not seen before. And in the end, Jesus did it by dying.
This is not to say that political involvement isn’t Christian, or that we should never talk politics or theology. Far from it! Use your civil liberties to make your voice heard in the public square. By all means, do so.
However, if Jesus was doing ministry in America right now I doubt it would be easy to identify Him with any one echo chamber. In fact, Jesus was accused of being a Samaritan, a drunk, a heretic, a blasphemer, and a usurper of the Roman throne. No one seemed to know exactly how to label Him. Would Jesus be a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or Independent? I suspect we wouldn’t be able to tell, nor would He ever answer that question directly. When He was asked about paying taxes to Rome, He basically dodged the question with verbal slight of hand.
Simply put, Jesus was too busy building another Kingdom to be overly concerned about the machinations of the rulers of this one. He refused to mix His passions between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of God.
Yes, exercise your civil liberties proudly. It’s good to live in America! But don’t try mix your passions or allegiances between kingdoms. You’re a stranger here and Jesus is still Lord.
Boy, do we have a lot to learn.
Unity and Diversity
God wants a church that is deeply unified, with maximum diversity. That’s impossible according to the world. You can only have one or the other.
But if we manage to put the Kingdom First, and subjugate all other concerns to that one priority, then unity and diversity is possible. If we allow love to govern our speech, our thoughts, and our preferences then we will not be a divided kingdom. The world may fall into that abyss of division, but the Church will not.
Will you recommit yourself to that today? Will you check your motives? Will you offer a generous benefit-of-the-doubt to your neighbors as we all try to awkwardly navigate an increasingly complicated political landscape?
Matthew 6:33 “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”